"Some things are best locked away."

I'm taking a break from my trek through Hugo winners (though I have been reading them, and I will have another review up eventually) because late one night I had one of those mental breaks that drive me to my bookshelf, and I want to talk about the book I--perhaps inevitably--picked up.

But first, some background. I am a person who makes sense of themselves (and reality) in words. I suspect some of you are similarly constituted--it's not universal but it's surely not unique. I make sense of life by writing, which is probably why I can't give up fiction even though I've had little to no success getting published or building an audience (hi, Mom). I also make sense of life by reading.

Now let me back up even further (there is a reason I'm moving this way, I think). In high school, a friend prevailed upon me to read J. D. Salinger's Nine Stories. I was distinctly underwhelmed, which is always awkward for everyone involved. I saw what he was doing but it just left me flat. The guilt of not liking something recommended by a friend whose taste I respected (hi, Rubin) impelled me to pick up another Salinger book when I saw it in a used book store.

And then I devoured Franny & Zooey in an afternoon, and despite the melodrama honesty compels me to admit that it changed me profoundly.

However, this post is not about Franny & Zooey. That's one of my favorite books, no qualifications. Between the ages of 16 and 26 I read it roughly every nine months, because it cleaned out the inside of my head when the noise and the wickedness and the banality of myself and the world overwhelmed me. It said some things about principles and artistry that I needed. I still halfway aspire to be J. D. Salinger. Over time, however, I no longer went back to it with that same compulsion. It was just as good as ever, but I had changed somehow.

Which brings me, at last, to the book I'd like to discuss. This is the book that I found myself unable to stop thinking about that night when the noise and the wickedness and the futility of myself and the world were overwhelming me again. I would like to discuss with you the excellences of John le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. For those coming in late, this is a novel set in Cold War Britain, about (among other things) the process of tracking down a mole who has sold British intelligence out to the Russians.

On a prose level, I consider Tinker Tailor prose for writers--it accomplishes its goals with an economy and skill that I am able to appreciate now that I've spent some years writing fiction and actively trying to figure out how stories work. I wish that "workmanlike" were not a pejorative, because it's hard to find another word that captures the unostentatious competence with which le Carré sets about making the English language do what he wants it to do. It's not fancy. It's just good.

The plot structure is really just fantastic--though, again, not flashy about it. There is no false urgency--the tension arises not from le Carré telling you "this is exciting!" but by a deliberate cranking up of the stakes. I think the best illustration I can give of this is to explain the beginning to you. The primary problem of the book is retired spy George Smiley's efforts to find the mole. Baldly put, this is an intellectual problem--a close cousin of the whodunit. On the face of it, it's a terrifically high-stakes question, much like the murder in a whodunit. However, if (like me) you've read a lot of those, you know that the reader usually approaches whodunit type problems with a degree of detachment no matter how high the stakes are.

So le Carré begins with a totally irrelevant and somewhat just-so chapter introducing Jim Prideaux, who has no apparent connection to this George Smiley guy. He introduces you to Jim largely through the eyes of schoolboy Bill Roach, chronicling Jim's arrival as a temp teacher at Bill's school. There's some tension, sure, but it's the small canvas. Jim's got a mysterious past, there's some sobering stuff that happens, but essentially it reads like the first chapter of a boys' school story.

Chapter Two reads like it should be chapter one. It introduces George Smiley, it engages our sympathies with this fat little ex-spy, it sketches out the important personalities and introduces us to the sequence of events that will be critical to the mystery, and it also introduces the retrospective devices that will dominate the rest of the book (of which more later). It's a great first chapter. So why is it Chapter Two?

It's Chapter Two because it's important that we care about Jim Prideaux--not in the context of the mystery, not in the abstract, but for himself and on the small, concrete canvas--before we learn about the mole. Jim is the one who arguably suffers the most from the mole's betrayal, and he does so in a very shocking and dramatic way. We don't learn this immediately, though, and this is what I mean when I praise le Carré's structure. He engages our emotions without signaling to us that he's doing so. We sort of forget that weird first chapter once we're well into the story, but it's our reference point for Jim, and so when we learn more of what the mole has done we've got those first impressions of Jim coloring our perception of the consequences of the mole's actions.

The rest of the book is like this. As noted above, the entire thing is unabashedly and sometimes recursively retrospective. The jacket copy on my edition calls this "a heart-stopping tale of international intrigue," and while I get the reasons for saying that it doesn't give the whole picture. The tension is fantastic, don't get me wrong, but this is just as much an elegiac tale of nested flashbacks, overlapping testimonies, and repeated recollections. Almost all of the violence comes in character testimony rather than direct narrative. This works so well because it reflects one of the central concerns of the book--memory and time.

Which brings me back around, actually, to the excellences of Tinker Tailor that have made it the book I now read roughly every nine months in order to clean my head out. Which is to say, the problems it tackles, some of which are peculiarly poignant to me. This is hard for me to talk about, but I started out the essay with this so I should probably end with it. I don't want to preach at you, but in some ways the structure, plot, style, etc. of the novel revolves around a series of questions, contradictions, difficulties. It reminds me somewhat of, bizarrely enough, certain books of the Old Testament (this may also be because I have spent the past several years in a slow private study of OT wisdom literature).

Forgetting the past seems desirable, but it's impossible to accomplish. Love is dangerous and possibly futile, but it's inevitable and maybe even noble. Doing the right thing is necessary, but painful and wearisome. The very qualities we might think mitigate a person's treachery actually compound the harm they do.

Tinker Tailor does not resolve any of these problems definitively (though it does offer dramatic and emotional resolution). Perhaps this is why I find it so reassuring, because I'm very frustrated with the "definitive" answers I receive from contemporary this-worldly common wisdom on these issues, answers that seem facile in the face of real unhappiness and real wickedness. Perhaps this does not speak well of me, or of my relationship to the sadness that still perches on my shoulder. I don't know, honestly.

However, I just finished my regular reading, and I think you could do a lot worse than to give this intricate story a chance.

Comments

  1. This is excellent. In particular I want to put this on my wall:

    'Forgetting the past seems desirable, but it's impossible to accomplish. Love is dangerous and possibly futile, but it's inevitable and maybe even noble. Doing the right thing is necessary, but painful and wearisome. The very qualities we might think mitigate a person's treachery actually compound the harm they do."

    Your conclusion is exactly why I love John le Carre so much, and Tinker Tailor -- because he does not conclude with definitive answers. There are no definitive answers and it's so frustrating and yet so reassuring that he acknowledges that -- frustrating because as readers we want endings and satisfying conclusions, reassuring because we know he understands the nuances of grey over black and white 'The End'.

    Thank you for posting this. I really enjoyed it.

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    1. I am so sorry it took me this long to reply, because this is an awesome comment. Thank you. I agree so much with what you say about the mixture of frustration and reassurance in his ambiguity. I think one of the things that makes it work in Tinker Tailor is the way he provides some dramatic/emotional resolution--I think of the bit where Guillam goes back to Camilla, and the sheer fact that we do learn the mole's identity--without resolving the really central issues. It leaves us feeling unresolved, but not cheated. Which gets again to why I admire him so much--his craft is just SO TIGHT.

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  2. Great writing. And I love that book, and the movies based on the book. We seem to have so much in common. And more people need to see what you write. Pondering...

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    1. Eeek, I never replied to this (it came in shortly before I got sick...). Thank you! I have only seen the movie version of Tinker Tailor starring Gary Oldman, which is good but I feel makes more sense if you've read the book (and I disagree with one or two choices, though I'll forgive a lot for Colin Firth's performance).

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